Bish Bosch is the much anticipated fourteenth studio album from 'Godlike genius' Scott Walker. Six years on from The Drift, Andrew R. Hill plumbs the depths with an extended analysis of the 'exhaustingly thrilling' record that may well be Walker's latter-day magnum opus.
Bish Bosch comes six and a half years after the desolate and disquieting horrorscape of Walker’s previous album proper, The Drift. It was a sparse, amniotic, terrifying masterpiece. To get lost in that record meant the threat of never coming back was very real; some of us almost didn’t. Bish Bosch has its moments of silence (or ‘thick silences’ as Rob Young would have it in the press release) and is possessed of intensity comparable to its predecessor, albeit of a rather different kind; however, it is in many ways a far more complex and exhausting record. The Drift was full of complicated concepts, but the text was cavernous, as was the music, chasmic swathes of sonic space interrupted by monolithic blocks of acoustic noise; Bish Bosch is a near-constant miasma of shifting and contrasting lyrical and musical ideas, the latter being – as the composer always insists – directed by the former, an important aspect to keep in mind when approaching this record (and the rest of Walker’s self-composed oeuvre).
Jackhammer bass drum. “While plucking feathers/from a swan song, / Spring might/press its thumbs/against your eyes. / While plucking feathers/from a swan song, / a cobweb melts/within a womb. / While plucking feathers/from a swan song, / an incontinent/is singing Scarpia.” What does it mean? Who’s to know, but it does bear many of the lyrical markers that recur throughout the album: wordplay, twisted humour, oblique cultural and historical references, queasy anatomical imagery, with an undertone of violence and a sense of the absurd. This confluence of disparate concerns persists throughout most of the album and renders it an intellectually tasking listen. If Walker is to be considered a Modernist, then Bish Bosch may well be his Finnegan’s Wake, and as with that most consistently opaque text, one could be forgiven for thinking every now and then that the author may be playing a little with his audience – he may even be taking the piss. This is not to disparage the work of course - this is a complicated record to attempt to digest, lyrics alone - but it’s important to remember that Walker isn’t without a sense of humour.
Corps de Blah has an overtly anatomical lyric and revels in a kind of bodily disgust. To a choir of flatulent squeals, Walker remarks: “Ah, my old/Scabby Sachem, /A sphincters [sic] tooting our tune.” Elsewhere, he’s “drowning Yonical tears” and tells us “Grinding upheaval/always affects the genitals”. But Corps de Blah isn’t merely a series of bodily distortions, there’s references to North American Indian leaders (“Sachem”, “Sagamore”), the stars of the Summer Triangle (“Altair, Verga[…]and Deneb”), imperial Russia (“in the Duma”), French folk dance (“Eukaryotic/ gobbler of gavotte”) and mediaeval leather shoes (“ ‘Take your/turnshoes/and wobble’ ”). It’s incredibly difficult to construct even the most simplistic of interpretations without feeling one is falling significantly and idiotically short of the actual meaning (if there is or ever can be one). It could be about growing old, the anatomical elements of the lyric referring to the inevitable decline and disintegration of one’s body with age, while the ancient and old curiosities are relics, remnants, a sense of obsolescence one is made to feel when facing old age. Not knowing whether one is even close to interpreting the lyrics ‘correctly’ is one of the great joys of Bish Bosch – it’s an album you could probably listen to a thousand times and still find a new interpretation for a line here, or a stanza there. It could never really get boring (if anything, it gets more interesting with repeat listens), but it is bloody tiring.
All that, and (flatulence aside) no real mention of the music: a constantly shifting tapestry of aural disturbance, restless and bordering on the unhinged. Over ten minutes there are passages that bear passing resemblance to snatches of every album Walker has made since the Walker Brothers’ Nite Flights onwards, as well as its own vocabulary: mournful a capelle vocals, ominous orchestral clouds, aqueous rolling percussion, cockerels crowing, tangles of atonal staccato strings, dulcimer-like chiming and glitchy electronics, not to mention the clashing machetes, a sound that appears periodically throughout the course of the album. The aural palette continues to expand throughout the album: metallic guitar riffs, dementedly jazzy bursts of horns, jingle bells and percussive, rain-like skittering. Often the music will turn without pause or warning – it takes many listens to be able to anticipate the twists in these slippery and frequently recondite compositions.
Perhaps most abstruse of the nine tracks on Bish Bosch is SDSS 1416+13B (Zercon, a Flagpole sitter) (the title says it all, really). Outside of classical and contemporary classical music, it may well be one of the most complicated compositions that one could ever hope to encounter. There’s no real comprehensive manner of describing the music outside of the above, so in many ways it’s better to approach the lyrics in order to illustrate this alleged complexity, bearing in mind that the music changes completely every few dozen seconds with very little repetition over twenty one minutes and forty three seconds, all through following the lyric. The loose concept (as explained by the composer) is that Zercon (also known as Zerco), a deformed Moorish dwarf that performed as a kind of jester in the court of Attila the Hun, becomes a flagpole sitter (just what it sounds like) and eventually turns into 'The coolest sub-stellar body ever found outside the solar system', a brown dwarf known as SDSS 1416+13B. That’s a fantastical and fantastic and complicated concept enough without taking into account the other threads that run throughout, often concurrently.
Much of the song features a giddily overwhelming array of imagery that alludes to the final decline of the Roman Empire, a process that was reaching its conclusion in the Fifth Century AD (indeed one of the final Roman emperors, Aetius, was said to have been sent Zercon as a present by Attila the Hun). Pagan ritual, rape, bestiality and buggery abound, as well as the recurrent bodily concerns and leg-crossing, teeth-clenching violence - “I’ve severed/my reeking gonads/fed them to your/shrunken face”. Even a passage as unpleasant as “ ‘Don’t forget to blink, /lest your eyeballs dry up, fall out/of their sockets and dangle on your/cheeks like Caesar’s shriveled/coglione’ ” is not just brutal grotesquerie – it is of course an allusion to the increasingly impotent Roman Empire that Zercon withdraws from.
There’s also the recurrence of seemingly inexplicable sequences Roman numerals such as “III V IX/IX I V I” – what the hell could it mean? “V I VII/IX I IX I”. It becomes more apparent later on: “WANTED! / A LISPING, HOBBLING, NOSELESS/RUNT. /Phone IX IX IX/IX IX IX I.” - they’re Roman telephone numbers on ancient classified ads. It’s obtuse and funny, but presented as an aggressive assault. Their recurrence follows bizarre and obscene services proffered: ”For a Roman who’s proof/that Greeks fucked bears. / V V IX/VII V IV I”.
SDSS 1416+13B opens with a series of aggressive barbs that sound as if they are directed at the titular entertainer (albeit in a modern context – but we’re not in Ancient Rome as we know it anyway), but they also sound as if they could be insults that Walker himself has received throughout his fifty-odd year career in the music industry: “You know what?/You should get an agent/why sit in the dark/handling yourself.”.
Furthermore, allusions to imagined ‘jokes’ pepper the song “…The tasteless one about the bantam/who wouldn’t climb a rung” and “HOW ABOUT, /’YOU’RE SO FAT, /WHEN YOU WEAR A YELLOW/RAINCOAT, PEOPLE SCREAM/TAXI?’ ”. Maybe they’re Zercon’s lines, or maybe they’re suggestions to him – either way, they seem to tap into the humiliation one can suffer as an ‘entertainer’ and Walker, whether he is Zercon or not, seems to tap into his own experiences of being made to feel worthless for both following his artistic muse and for giving people what (they think) they want, at different points in his career. “HEY BUDDY! / GIVE IT UP! / HEY PAL!/COME DOWN! JOIN THE LIVING!” – Zercon stuck up the flagpole, Scott the ‘reclusive’ one-time pop star, '[Now] out on his own' (as it was put in a recent interview with The Wire).
Zercon, sick of the slings and arrows, vows he’ll “Grease this pole behind [him]” and, successfully isolated, contemplates his new home: “Its so cold [sic] / Infrared. / what if I freeze, / and/drop / into/the/darkness?”
By the time you’ve reached the bleak conclusion of SDSS 1416+13B, you’re just over half way through Bish Bosch. You feel like you’ve just run a marathon carrying a sub-stellar body, right? It’s a good time for an interval, a breather, yeah? Oh no. Don’t even think about it.
Epizootics! is another batshit crazy menagerie, but far more playful and less overtly serious than its predecessors, sounding a little like Trout Mask Replica as interpreted by Einstürzende Neubauten on a Cab Calloway kick. Playful or not, it does mark a point in the album where analysis of the lyrics becomes, for the most part, increasingly difficult.
Dimple and Tar are more reminiscent of The Drift in the comparative sparseness of their arrangements, while further developing the sonic idiom of the record. As on much of the Bish Bosch, Tar finds Walker’s voice (otherwise known as ‘that voice’) strained, tremulous and tense, but it’s a deliberate choice – as Walker pushes himself out of his comfort zone, so too does the listener become divorced from their own comfort zone. Pilgrim is a bizarre vignette - restless, pattering percussion backs a repetitive lyric that features a “Room full of mice/room full of mice” and “Blowing up bullfrogs/with a straw. /Staring/into their eyes/just before they/burst.” It’s profoundly disturbing, but it is also rather funny in both content and delivery, serving as some ‘light’ relief before the album’s closing track.
Just under eight minutes long, The Day ‘The Conducator’ Died (An Xmas song) is relatively basic, the arrangement consisting of - alternately sonorous and glistening - guitar, the regular beat of jingle bells, subtle touches of keyboard and Walker’s voice. In some ways it’s the most conventional track on the album: it has verses, a chorus, and a middle eight. In further adherence to what passes for convention, it follows Walker’s previous three albums proper in that they have all concluded with stripped back songs played (almost) entirely by him. The lyric appears to be the last or perhaps even the dying thoughts of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, the ‘Conducator’ of the title who was killed by firing squad on Christmas Day, 1989. Despite its subject matter, it manages to be deeply melancholic and beautiful, with a disturbing and absurd undertow that is appropriate for the subject (at no point do you feel sorry for the doomed totalitarian). It concludes with a snatch of a familiar festive melody - it is Christmas, after all – a final, grimly humorous touch of disquietude.
Bish Bosch could be the last album Walker ever makes and it might not matter; a work (let alone an oeuvre) as dense and rich as this leaves enough for us to analyse and scratch our heads over - to baffle and frustrate us, to cow us in awe of music that goes beyond music, lyrics that go beyond lyrics, and ideas that stretch credibility and credulity to breaking point - for some time to come. Of course, we do want another album, because Bish Bosch is among the most exhaustingly thrilling and fearlessly intellectual explorations of what music can be (and what humanity can be) that you may ever hear. It is not for the faint of heart, it is not polite, it is not commercial, it is not music fit for dinner parties or adverts or cookery programmes or use as aural wallpaper – it demands your attention, and it deserves it. In this sense, it is a thoroughly old-fashioned proposition – in every other, it stands decades ahead of everything and everyone else.
‘Bish Bosch’ is out now through 4AD on LP, CD and download formats.